Monday, December 30, 2013

Words Reveal

In the not-so-distant past, I remember an evening of enjoyable post-dinner conversation. Seven of us around the table--missionaries--and the subject followed usual lines. We all worked in Africa, so the stories of accidents, near-misses, and scorn of maintenance were set in vast plains, potholed roads, and humid swamps. It was not so much a competition as a mutual shaking of heads and chuckling at the lives we had chosen and been called to.

But in the African context, stories always turn medical because life is fragile and the miracles of the precarious are most precious. Two missionary nurses were at the table, and though I knew them both, I hadn’t consciously thought about their vocation. I have a amaranthine admiration for this amazing breed of women: their calling awes me. Missionary nurses were models of love and humor throughout my MK childhood in Korea and adult work in Africa. These are the women who make it happen: keeping doctors going and hospitals running and people living . . .

and people laughing.

We did our share of laughing that evening as the setting African sun sent shimmering rays on the dining table. And I heard words that showed me a heart inside I hadn’t seen before.

It was an unremarkable story about the usual petty, rural bureaucrat in a developing country with no concept of medicine, medical education, or helping communities grow. The nurse had been involved in the start-up of a project that had suffered quite a few impediments and not a little greed; this big-fish-in-a-little-pond had met more than his match with our friend. She put him in his place with her degrees and certifications and authorizations until he slunk away with his tail between his legs. No one pushed her around: then, or ever.

I looked to the other nurse, a friend I’d known many more years, and saw pain etched in her face. She, too, had endured being bullied and put-down by people vastly her “inferior” over the years. But she would not have thought of them as such, since she loved them unconditionally. She learned their languages. She wore their cloth wraps. Her children played with theirs.

Suddenly my eyes saw how powerfully our words reveal who we are. 

My close friend, who had also held my hand while I labored with our firstborn, didn’t say much else that evening. She could have wowed us with her current work in a big-city, high-powered, multi-machined, neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit. But her private stories to me are peppered with words like “honored” and “humbled”. The times she has given the Lord credit for her not blundering or a patient not dying cannot be counted. The miracles she has seen, when ineptness--her own or someone else’s--would have been inevitable tragedy, but God . . . are the warp and woof of her words.

And those are two of her favorite words: “but God . . .”

She does not believe herself capable or qualified. She seeks out the Somali patients who are frightened and in cultural confusion, assuring them that she grew up in Africa and is African. She is dumb-founded that her supervisor would ever put her in charge of a shift and admit: “There’s no way I could do it. I just don’t know it all. They could all do it better than I.” But she does it and does it well.

I simply want to say to her: you are my choice at my bedside when I’m giving birth.

And I wonder: what do my words say about me?

Monday, December 23, 2013

As She Lay Dying

Last Friday I heard from my brother that Mom would soon be heading home. It was good sad news. 

Mom, by her own description, was at the gate in the airport with her standby ticket waiting for her boarding pass. Waiting. Dad had boarded and gone on a previous flight. So she waited--for seven years and six days.

This kind of waiting hardly feels productive. More like killing time. And time and life are so precious that it seems a shame to do so. Her life was spent on people and she spent time like she spent money: carefully. But by the end, others were spending on her--but she couldn’t take it in. 

So I walked through the weekend doing what was on my calendar: wrapping Christmas gifts, attending a joyful wedding celebration complete with reception under sun umbrellas on the grass with singing and complimenting and best wishes so thick you could feel them in the breeze. Then we enjoyed a sparse church service on Sunday with manifold lengthy testimonies and a birthday party later in the day with cake and ice cream.

I did all this while she lay dying. She came to mind, but I know her so well. I knew she’d want me to carry on. And what else could I do? I’m on the other side of the world.

There is nothing I would rather have been doing last weekend than sitting by her bed holding her hand, and accompanying her to the end of her marathon. I had that privilege with Dad seven years ago. I held his hand. I heard him breathing more and more slowly. I saw the little heartbeat impulses get farther and farther apart. Then it went flat and he wasn’t there. 

But what an honor to see him through. It is a huge journey and one we truly make alone. Something in me thinks that having family around you would be a lovely thing. Would make it not so intimidating or scary. We do things in community all our lives, but we truly die on our own. 

So thinking of Mom, curled in her fetal position, dense with pain killers and unaware of whether I was holding her hand or not, I grieve that I wasn’t there for me. I am the one who lost out, but it feels like she missed something as well.

I don’t know what it was like when she passed over. And I wonder. Were there familiar faces to greet her, as I imagine it to be? Was Dad there, waiting? Or Uncle Dick? Or others she loved and cared for at the end? Guess I won’t know till it’s my turn and I pass alone into that wonderful place we anticipate vaguely and through a glass darkly.

Meanwhile, as she lay dying, I carried on with life, grateful for a loving mom. She was beset with self-doubt, depression and perfectionism. But she loved to get a good bargain and laugh and play scrabble. Me? I’m not so big on bargains, but I laugh and play scrabble every day.

Oh, and now Mom's home for Christmas with Dad.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Till We Have Forgiveness

Last Sunday I sat in church listening to thirty minutes of testimonies in isiXhosa. Every once in a while I'd recognize a word, or some English would  pop in to tantalize me, then I was left in a flurry of liquid syllables again. During a tearful, heartbroken story, a lovely young woman sobbed, "I realized I had to forgive him over and over again. Once was not forgiveness" and the truth again hit me full force.

She is caring for a brother who "cannot do anything for himself." I don't know the details, could be AIDS, especially in a township. What a difficult life, I realized, lay behind the exuberant singing, the rhythmic dancing, and the elegant arms waving Sunday after Sunday from this beautiful sister. 

Forgiveness has been a lot on my mind of late because a story closer to home is charred around the edges for the lack of it. A wedding without an aunt who is like a second mother. A family coming together, but missing nearby members. A sister who will not speak to a sister--with hearts of children turned bitter. The phrase, "Love keeps no record of wrongs" keeps repeating itself in my mind. What an impossible description. Who on earth can love, then?

In my own struggles with forgiveness I have walked the steps of anger, blame, resentment and then realized the oft-repeated truth that not forgiving is to become a slave to the one you cannot forgive. But as my beautiful Xhosa friend observed: once is not forgiveness. She had to forgive over and over, as often as her heart brought it up again. Bitterness is an ugly jailor, but the keys are in our own pockets.

Part of the trouble with forgiveness is that we don't understand what it is: it is a holy, wise, and mystical thing. It is not part of our nature. We are much keener on what we call justice than forgiveness. We are born with "it's not fair" in our DNA. But keeping no record of wrongs sounds just, well, wrong. And stupid.

But it is a God-like stupidity. It reaffirms the good in the worst of us. It turns on the grace full blast. It flings mercy all over like confetti. And it feels good. It feels very good. To the giver and the receiver.

"Till We Have Faces" (TWHF) is my most often read Lewis book. Every time I hear Orual's voice, complaining or angry, wistful or broken, I learn something new about us and our condition. Her pathetic attempts at self-justification and insistence on her love for Pysche ring with disquieting familiarity. Her inner problems and her relationship issues are much like our own internal wars to forgive our culpable "others." 

While the themes of life, death, dreams, reality, and vision are preeminent in TWHF, I hear the forgiveness theme in a minor chord: 

“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that's all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

How long do we live in a little dark room of bitterness which cannot forgive, not realizing that there is a great real place where we can meet one another in the light of the True Son?
A place bigger than our own limited perception of right and wrong, fair and unjust--a place more real than what we can see. 

"Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood." (TWHF)